Several years ago I drove to a friend’s mountain cabin near West Jefferson for ten days to get my novel jump-started. I’d dabbled with the story for a while, writing a few scenes here and there, but I knew I needed uninterrupted time to get the thing in gear.
Writer friends had warned me to decompress for a day or two before diving into writing. I took that advice to the extreme. By the fifth day, I finally stopped avoiding the blank page and sat down to get serious. But doubt filled my head rather than words filling the pages. Who was I kidding, I wondered? Did I truly have the writing chops to pen a novel? How could I make this book fly with my limited experience and flawed discipline? Even if I finished a quarter of the book in the remaining days, how would it be possible to return to the real world to complete it given a packed schedule and the multiple obstacles life liked to hurl at me? I sat on the deck that day with pen and paper in the late April sun and instead of pushing through and making it work, I focused on my flaws as a writer and the imperfect writing environment that awaited on my return. At the end of the day only meaningless scribbles emerged.
By the middle of the sixth day, I could no longer tolerate the stench of the garbage I’d written so I grabbed my camera and drove to a nearby hiking trail to walk off my frustration. Taking photos of nature relaxes me. If I couldn’t find the perfect words, at least I hoped to find some perfect shots. The trail I chose had a sign at the entrance that gently warned of predators: black bears, bobcats, and snakes. Had I actually stacked up some good writing over those six days at the cabin, maybe I would have hesitated, but the thought of becoming a bear’s meal seemed more appealing at that moment than returning empty handed from my writing retreat.
The trail wound upward over a distance through trees and rhododendrons until it spilled into a grass clearing where a huge boulder broached the green. A hollow area atop the boulder’s center held several gallons of rainwater like an ancient cistern that I imagined having been carved by prehistoric hands. I stood for a few moments to soaked it in until I noticed a large yellow and black butterfly fluttering near the trees at the clearing’s edge.
I’d always known that the transformative nature of butterflies would play a role in my novel, so the winged creature energized me. I snapped a few shots with my camera but even with its telephoto lens I knew the distance would only produce a yellow and black blur. I moved closer for a better shot, but the butterfly changed direction and flitted away, bobbling up a wide, inclined path beyond me that seemed to lead right into a blue sky dotted with the billow of white clouds. I followed. After cresting the ridge, the path opened to a green and gold meadow, an unexpected sight atop the mountain.
The butterfly hugged the edge of the meadow near the trees and I walked fast, almost running, as I chased it for my perfect photo. Finally, it floated down a good distance from me onto a rhododendron. I stopped. Before moving closer, I lifted my camera to quickly get my photo before the creature took to the sky once again. As I twisted the lens as far as it would go to frame the butterfly on its green perch, disappointment set in. The butterfly’s left wing had a huge chunk torn away, almost half of it missing.
So much for my perfect shot.
I snapped a few anyway, then dropped the camera to my side and walked right up to the butterfly, not caring at that point if it flew away. It didn't. As I stopped a few feet away to study it, the disappointment intensified. But this time the feeling had nothing to do with the butterfly. This time the disappointment was a double barrel squarely aimed at myself.
For one, shame on me for being disappointed that the butterfly wasn’t perfect, for seeing that broken wing through flawed eyes that did not immediately comprehend sheer awe in the butterfly’s ability to not only lift to the sky and soar, but to also lead me on a spirited chase. And two, for ever questioning myself, for doubting that I could also lift off and fly with my own flawed wings.
I raised the camera and reverently took several shots of the beautiful creature, one I now saw as absolutely perfect in its own way. And after I finished my hike and returned to the cabin, as the late afternoon sun slipped behind a far mountain, I wrote well into the night and all of the next day. And the next. And the next. When one is not worried about his flaws, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.
I’ve since taken numerous photos of perfect butterflies over the years, but to me, none are as beautiful.